The cobbled street glistens from the early morning drizzle. Streetlamps cast a golden glow on the Spanish ancestral houses, which loom hazily on either side, their arched wooden doors and dilapidated capiz window panels in full display. Colorful Christmas lanterns sway in the breeze, dangling from the lamppost along the sidewalk. Calle Crisologo is eerily quiet before dawn. I walk around, peering at cafes and souvenir shops now yawning in the inky darkness, running my fingers on vintage signs and decors that hang on whitewashed brick walls. The clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones occasionally echoes in the silence. Who could be riding the calesa at this ungodly hour? Bygone abaniko-carrying ladies in ternos on their way to the misa di gallo at the nearby cathedral? A prayle, perhaps? One’s imagination runs wild in an ancient city.
Vigan City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the capital of Ilocos Sur, is steeped in history. It has witnessed not only the opulence of ancient commerce in Northern Luzon but also generations of bloody rebellion against the foreign colonizers. Chinese traders once occupied the 500-meter Calle Crisologo, which was already a bustling commercial settlement when the Spanish explorers, led by Juan de Salcedo, came in 1572. He named the town “Villa Fernandina De Vigan” in honor of King Philip II’s son, Prince Ferdinand. During the Galleon Trade from the 15th to the early 18th century, goods from western and mid-eastern countries also found their way to the streets of Vigan.
Have you ever wondered how it felt to be an illustrado during the Spanish Era? As the golden streetlights dissolve into the white and gray background, I find myself in Hotel Felicidad, a hotel that promises a glimpse of the old life. The century-old building was once home to spouses Dr. Filadelfo Rosario de Leon and Dona Primitiva Encarnacion Donato. It is within Vigan’s Heritage Village and is just a stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Plaza Burgos, Plaza Salcedo and several museums. Imagine waking up each morning to the resounding clang of the bell from the cathedral. “It was a status symbol back then. The homes of the rich and prominent were located near the church and plaza,” says Lian, my guide. The couple’s grandchildren subsequently inherited the ancestral house, until a private corporation acquired it a few years ago. It was then meticulously restored and refurbished to become Hotel Felicidad.
The hotel’s Hispanic colonial character evokes a sense of nostalgia. Going up to the second floor, I travel a few centuries back as I am welcomed by a wide balustraded staircase, polished Narra plank floors, full height wooden frames and capiz windows and a Grand Sala with antique art pieces and fixtures. Owner Bonito Singson says the house’s original features were preserved and faithfully adopted during the restoration process.
The hotel has 34 spacious rooms, which are classified into standard, superior, deluxe, dormitory and Grand Suites. The latter is further categorized into Ninos Suite, La Casa Rosa, La Casa Verde, Maestro Suite and Maestra Suite. The last two are the most elegant, inarguably befitting the don and the donya, and are even furnished with genuine antique aparador, baul and Tres Lunas dressers to complete the old-world ambience. Most rooms boast of 18th century four-poster beds made of solid Kamagong and Molave and accessorized with Vigan Abel mosquito nets and bed runners. Despite the traditional setup though, each room is equipped with modern amenities such as air-conditioning system, flat screen LED television sets with satellite programs, Wi-Fi access, safety deposit box, and hot and cold shower system.
Hotel Felicidad also offers tour assistance and bike rental. “Vigan is practically a museum of a city. We encourage our guests to go out and enjoy a blast from the past experience,” says Mia, the hotel’s general manager.
“So who are the Crisologos anyway?” I ask obliviously as I wander inside the Crisologo ancestral house, now a museum that exhibits mementoes and original furnishings. My question is met by an old lady’s raised eyebrow. The portraits and old photographs on the wall set things straight: the Crisologos are one of the most influential political families in the province. Don Mena Pecson Crisologo was an eminent Ilokano writer and the first provincial governor of Ilocos Sur in 1901. The world-famous street in Vigan, Calle Crislologo, is named after him. Another Crisologo also caught the entire country’s attention during the 70s. Floro Crisologo, a brilliant lawyer and congressman who authored bills that created the Social Security System and the Virginia Tobacco Law, was assassinated inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. The clothes that he died in and his family’s antique collection such as rebultos, glass chandeliers, kitchenware, carruaje and a vintage car are just some of the things that can be seen inside the museum.
Just a short calesa ride away from the Crisologo Museum is the Syquia Mansion. It has maintained its original Bahay na Bato design; thick brick walls on the ground floor and hardwood on the second. Dona Alicia Syquia Quirino, wife of the country’s sixth president Elpidio Quirino, owned this grand ancestral house, now also a museum. “You break a mirror, you suffer seven years of bad luck,” jests the caretaker. It is impossible to ignore the life-size Venetian mirrors that decorate almost every corner of the second floor. “Mirrors were very expensive back then since they were imported from Murano Island in Italy. Accidentally breaking one means you’d have to work for years to pay for it,” he continues. He then leads us to more high-ceilinged rooms filled with antique vases, giant rebultos, chinaware and art pieces from countries all over the world. Huge oil portraits of the family done by national artist Fernando Amorsolo and a replica of the Spolarium hang on the living room. The dining hall is just as grand, and the huge drapes, called punkah, that hang from the ceiling are hard to miss. The punkahs were used as fans to drive away flies and were manually operated by servants for the diners.
Artifacts that portray the Ilocano culture, livelihoods and traditions are reposited inside the 300-year old provincial jail, which was recently converted into a national museum. This is also the birthplace of President Elpidio Quirino in 1890, whose father was then the jail warden. Here, I see traditional clay jars, musical instruments, weapons, utensils, basketry, costumes and dioramas showing historical events in Ilocos Sur. One of the rooms exhibits the Basi Revolt Paintings of Don Esteban Villanueva, a businessman and painter who recorded the 1821 bloody rebellion of the Ilokanos against the Spanish government, which implemented the Basi (sugarcane wine) and Tobacco monopoly to increase its revenue for the campaigns to take possession of Mindanao.
Testament to a glorious past, beautifully preserved colonial era churches stand stalwartly around the city. One of them is St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in Earthquake Baroque architectural design (with bell tower built separately to prevent it from toppling over the church) and completed in 1800. The original structure, made of wood and thatch, was built in 1574 upon the command of the Spanish founder of Vigan, Juan de Salcedo.
The majestic St. Augustine Parish Church (Bantay Church), in the municipality of Bantay, is a silent witness to many bloody rebellions and atrocities in the past. Its surroundings were where Diego Silang and his troops fought the Spaniards in 1763. Built with a neo-gothic design in 1590, the church has deep-brown façade made of bricks and mud, and also has a separate belfry that sits on top of a hill. The bell tower was part of the town’s defense against the Moro pirates during the 16th century. Visitors can climb up a rickety staircase to the top of the tower, where five enormous World War II bells hang and a breathtaking panoramic view of Vigan and the West Philippine Sea awaits.
The grumble in my stomach tells me to give my taste buds a thrill they’ll never forget. Riding a calesa, I ask the kutsero (driver) to take me to the best empanadahan in the city. “It depends on your taste,” he says, but recommends Irene’s, right along Calle Crisologo. It is unforgivable to skip the delectable half-moon shaped empanada when you are in Vigan. Attendants usually make it as ordered to ensure crunchiness, skillfully rolling out dough as thinly as possible, filling it with shredded papaya and cabbage, cracking an egg over the center, sprinkling it with longganisa bits, folding the dough over and finally sealing its edges together before deep-frying until crispy. This version of empanada tastes best when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). Most empanada stalls also serve okoy, a crunchy shrimp fritter made of tiny shrimps and glutinous rice batter.
The cluster of stalls near Plaza Burgos offers more culinary gems such as the sinanglaw and Vigan longganisa. The former is a savory soup dish made of beef and beef innards and flavored with onion, garlic, ginger and kamias. “We Ilokanos aren’t wasteful. Sometimes, we even include latteg (cow testicles) in the sinanglaw,” says the attendant. The latter is staple on the Ilokano breakfast table and is a favorite pasalubong among visitors. It is distinctly garlicky and doesn’t have the sweet taste of a typical longganisa. It is said to be an influence of the Mexican salami and has existed since the period of the Galleon trade, when Spanish goods reached the province.
Shortly after I finish a serving of longganisa, I sink my teeth into a chunk of deep-fried pork with crackling and blistered skin, dipped in vinegar with garlic, onion and hot chili. It is sinfully good I eat it with abandon. One should never leave Vigan without trying the bagnet, a slab of pork belly that is boiled until tender, seasoned with salt and pepper and deep-fried twice to attain its extra crispy texture. The bagnet also makes a perfect topping for the pinakbet, another Ilokano dish I sample at the Pinakbet Farm, a restaurant in a farm setting. The pinakbet is a vegetable dish made of small bitter gourd, eggplant, okra, string beans and chili and flavored with bagoong (fermented fish). In Pinakbet Farm, the vegetables are grown organically in a garden just beside the restaurant.
Don’t forget to try the tinubong as well. The name comes from “tubong”, the internode of a bamboo. This sweet and filling snack is made of glutinous rice, coconut milk, coconut strips and sugar cooked inside the tubong over charcoal.
In Vigan, the much sought-after souvenir is an earthenware called burnay. The making of burnay dates back to the pre-colonial times when migratory traders from China settled in the province. They practiced the craft of making earthenware using clay that can be found in the Western area of Vigan. These jars are traditionally used as containers for locally made vinegar, basi and bagoong. Locals swear that these products taste even better when stored inside the burnay. Thankfully, the continuous demand for these wares has sustained the burnay factories and preserved the ancient industry. Today, at the Pagburnayan, a village at the southwestern end of Liberation Boulevard, visitors can see factories making these jars using pre-historic methods of production.
The abel cloth, a traditional woven product in Vigan, also has its own story to tell. The craft dates back to the early years of the Spanish occupation and were said to be a major export during the galleon trade. The process of weaving abel cloths, which are made of locally-grown sagut (cotton), is intricate and labor-intensive. However, they are durable and beautifully designed that some families even have them as heirlooms. Today, there are still few who practice the age-old craft and they can be found in the village of Camangaan, Mindoro and San Pedro.
As twilight descends, I sit in one of the caritela benches that line Calle Crisologo. An approaching calesa click-clacks along the street to complete a breathtaking portrait of antiquity. I savor the scenery. The next day will find me back to the real world. If only I could freeze time, just like this ancient city.
How to Get There:
From Manila, ride a bus bound for Vigan at the Cubao Bus Terminal. Fare is Php 600
Where to Stay:
#9 V. delos Reyes cor Florentino St.
Vigan city, Ilocos Sur
+63 77 722 0008